Friday, November 8, 2013

Listening and silence in communications practice

I have been both consciously cultivating and naturally gravitating toward silence practice for many years. It's way, way easier alone -- I'm pretty happy with silence when I'm by myself. It's been a much harder leap to allow for silence with other people -- when things get hard or awkward, I tend to use words to try to make that discomfort go away.

I totally understand where the desire to smooth over silences comes from, but I also see the harm it can cause, and the things that I miss, so I keep working on it. I've seen frequently enough that sometimes the hardest conversations, the ones that bring us closer together, need a lot of silence, so I keep working on it.

Allowing for silence can be extra challenging in expert communities. Many of us are trained to fill pauses in conversation with more words. Being able to respond quickly is important for scientists in many scenarios, and makes sense in a lot of settings. Like, silence isn't usually going to help in an oral exam context. But, particularly in more engaged science communication models where information flows in multiple directions, silence is truly where its at sometimes - it can allow for the emergence of things that we might otherwise gloss over. Sometimes that pause, that breath, or those many minutes filled with what can feel like nothing are absolutely vital to building a relationship or gaining a deeper understanding. So much can be said by what is not spoken.

As I've written before, I am really interested in listening as a communications practice - listening in a way that we are totally open to being changed by what we hear. This kind of listening takes tremendous practice. A lifetime of practice. And learning to be comfortable with and even embrace silence is part of the practice.

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